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Empty Glass, Full Life

Hugh Masekela returns to the Kuumbwa, sober, hopeful, and filled with new music

By Peter Koht

Talking to Hugh Masekela is a compressed lesson in music history. His first professional trumpet was given to him by Louis Armstrong, he played with both Fela Kuti and Bob Marley and his first wife was Miriam Makeba. Christ, he's even on Paul Simon's speed dial.

But rather than looking back at a long and eventfully career and retreading his 1968 hit "Grazing in the Grass," Masekela's latest recording Revival looks to South Africa's youth for inspiration. Working with producers Zwai Bala and Godrey Pilane, Masekela throws down some fierce lines on a batch of tunes based around Afrobeat, hip-hop and Kwaito rhythms.

This latter genre, which only emerged after South Africa repudiated apartheid in the early '90s, is as syncretic as the land that give it birth. Reached on the phone in Tokyo, Masekela explains Kwaito's roots as "a mélange of the South African township music called mbaqanga that we all grew up on and American music. Just like hip-hop is a derivative of R&B, Kwaito a derivative of mbaqanga and hip-hop."

Mbaqanga was a staple of Masekela's earlier groups, who made their reputations playing in District Six of Cape Town.

"District Six was a hell of a place." Masekela recalls, "It was comparable with the old Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a wonderful place with a lot of clubs and it was very cosmopolitan. It was right next to downtown Cape Town. It was jumping!"

After bulldozers plowed their way through the area, both to squelch black cultural development and to make room for white settlers, Masekela, along with other musicians like Hotep Idris Galeta and Abdullah Ibrahim, immigrated to Europe to escape apartheid's grip.

"South Africa at the time was becoming more and more unlivable both socially and politically," Masekela says. "We had always dreamt of going overseas. We always wanted to meet American and European musicians and interact with them. We thought that we might have a chance to meet the same standards of playing as those musicians did if we had the same opportunities."

Masekela went on to play shows all over the world while vocally protesting the apartheid regime back home. After Mandela was freed from Robbins Island, Masekela moved back to Johannesburg. Despite the absence of apartheid, his battles weren't over. After many years of the nightlife, he realized he had a drinking problem.

"We all came out of the tradition of drinking in South Africa," Masekela says. "It was only when I came back and reimmersed myself in the culture, that I realized I had a drinking problem. So I decided to go for help and recover."

Although eligible for social security, Masekela shows no signs of either slowing down or losing any of the prodigious chops that have made his horn one of the most clarion tones in all of South African music.


Hugh Masekela plays the Kuumbwa Jazz Center Wednesday, Aug. 3, 7 and 9pm. Tickets $26-$29. More information is available at www.kuumbwajazz.org.

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From the July 27-August 3, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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